Many of us remember terrazzo floors from childhood schools we attended or hospital corridors that we may have visited. Although many terrazzo floors have muted colors, terrazzo actually can be made in limitless color choices. With its environmental friendliness and versatility, it is a smart flooring choice for both residential and commercial properties. Understanding terrazzo, it's history, and care will help direct design and maintenance choices wherever it may be found, from historic to modern spaces.
Terrazzo is one of the oldest forms of installed flooring with examples that date back 9,000 years to the ancient cities of Jericho. Invented out of necessity, terrazzo was an easy way to use leftover chips of stone and was often mixed with clay, compacted, and coated with goat's milk. At that time, it was an inexpensive and durable floor; so durable, in fact, that some of these floors are still in existence today. As the centuries passed, cementitious materials took the place of the clay matrix and a more sophisticated sorting of the colors and size of the marble chips gave a more custom look. Terrazzo was used extensively by the Venetian's in the 16th century and eventually migrated into the rest of Europe, from sacred spaces and large buildings to private homes. In the late 1800's and the first half of the twentieth century, the use of terrazzo exploded in the United States with commercial, healthcare, and civic application. In 1959, designer and builder Frank Lloyd Wright, chose terrazzo for the floors of the famous Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
Twentieth century terrazzo was almost always sealed with film forming finishes to prevent staining. In the 1970's, with the onset of more complex polymer technologies emerging, a new generation of terrazzo using those polymers and then epoxy matrix completely changed the game. This new mixture allowed the terrazzo to be applied at depths of 1/4" to 3/8" rather than the standard 1-2" in the old style floors. Terrazzo has come a long way. Aggregates in new terrazzo are not limited to stone chips and can include mother of pearl, abalone, post consumer glass, porcelain, and mirrors chips. Custom designs can be achieved with the use of separators installed on the substrate that allow many different mixes of color in the same floor. These strips can be made of zinc, brass, and even colored plastic.
Property owners and managers should be aware of terrazzo strengths, weaknesses, and best maintenance practices. Both cementitious and epoxy terrazzo can be maintained with a natural shine achieved using the same polishing processes used on marble and other natural stone. Glossy waxes and shiny finishes on terrazzo look good at first, but eventually become scratched, trap dirt, and turn yellow. Natural polishing methods not only can achieve a beautiful shine, but eliminate the need for stripping and waxing. In very high traffic situations, or in facilities such as schools or hospitals where nonslip and antimicrobial floors are important, a high performance coating may be beneficial.